By Isabel Debré and Jon Gambrell | Associated Press
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – The British Navy warned on Tuesday of a “potential hijacking” of a vessel off the coast of the United Arab Emirates in the Gulf of Oman, without giving further details.
The incident comes amid heightened tensions between Iran and the West over Tehran’s tattered nuclear deal with world powers and as commercial shipping in the region has come under scrutiny. More recently, the US, UK and Israel blamed Iran for a drone attack on an oil tanker off Oman that killed two people. Iran has denied any involvement.
The British Army‘s UK Maritime Commercial Operations initially warned ships on Tuesday that “an incident is currently in progress” off Fujairah. Hours later, they said the incident was a “potential hijacking” but offered no further details.
Maritime authority Lloyd’s List and maritime intelligence firm Dryad Global have both identified the vessel involved as the Panamanian-flagged tanker Asphalt Princess. The owner of the vessel, listed as Glory International based in the Emirati free zone, could not immediately be reached for comment on Tuesday evening.
The US Army’s 5th Fleet based in the Middle East and the UK Ministry of Defense did not immediately respond to calls for comment. The Emirati government did not immediately acknowledge the incident.
Earlier, six tankers announced around the same time via their Automatic Identification System trackers that they were “not under command”, according to MarineTraffic.com. This usually means a ship has lost power and can no longer steer.
“At the same time, if they’re in the same vicinity and in the same place, that happens very rarely,” said Ranjith Raja, an oil and shipping expert at data firm Refintiv. “Not all ships would lose their engines or their ability to steer at the same time.”
One of the ships then began to move.
A Royal Air Force of Oman Airbus C-295MPA maritime patrol aircraft circled for hours above the water, according to data from FlightRadar24.com.
Apparently responding to the incident, Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh called the recent maritime attacks in the Persian Gulf “completely suspicious”. He denied that Iran was involved.
“Iranian naval forces are ready to help and rescue the region,” Khatibzadeh said.
The event comes just days after a drone struck an oil tanker linked to an Israeli billionaire off the coast of Oman, killing two crew members. The West blamed Iran for the attack, which marked the first known assault to kill civilians in the long shadow war targeting commercial shipping in the region.
Iran has denied having a role in the incident, although Tehran and its allied militias have used similar “suicide” drones in past attacks.
Israel, the United States and the United Kingdom promised a “collective response” to the attack, without giving further details.
The Gulf of Oman is near the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf through which a fifth of all oil passes. Fujairah, on the east coast of the United Arab Emirates, is a main port in the region where ships can take on new oil shipments, stock up or exchange crews.
Over the past two years, the waters off Fujairah have seen a series of explosions and hijackings. The US Navy has blamed Iran for a series of limpet mine attacks on ships that damaged tankers.
In July 2019, Iran seized the British-flagged Stena Impero in the Strait of Hormuz as it headed from the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas to Dubai. The raid came after authorities in Gibraltar, a British Overseas Territory, seized an Iranian supertanker carrying $130 million worth of crude oil, suspected of breaching European Union sanctions by ferrying the oil to Syria. Both ships were later released.
Last year, a tanker wanted by the United States for allegedly evading sanctions on Iran was hijacked off the Emirati coast in July, following months of tensions between Iran and the United States. The ship and its crew ended up in Iran, although Tehran never acknowledged the incident. .
And in January, armed Iranian Revolutionary Guard troops stormed a South Korean tanker and forced the ship to change course and sail to Iran. As Iran insisted on stopping the ship for polluting, it came as Tehran sought to increase its leverage over Seoul ahead of talks over billions of dollars in Iranian assets frozen in South Korean banks.
Associated Press writer Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Iran, contributed to this report.